By T. D. Thornton
The incorrect starting gate placement that caused the fifth race at Saratoga on Aug. 8 to be run at 1 1/8 miles instead of the as-carded 1 1/16 miles over the outer turf course was an embarrassing gaffe made worse by the failure of multiple track officials to recognize the mistake before the race went off.
The New York State Gaming Commission (NYSGC) has launched an investigation into the bungled race, and any sanctioning of track officials is likely to hinge on whom the commission believes should bear the ultimate responsibility on the checks-and-balances totem pole. But in reality, this mistake could be more aptly termed a lack of team effort.
The off-kilter fractions that were posted during the running of the race were the catalyst for realizing the race was being run over the wrong distance–as opposed to anyone in a position of authority figuring out beforehand that the gate had been placed in the wrong spot.
A race run over the wrong distance is a scenario that doesn’t appear to be directly addressed in the NYSGC racing rules. The closest applicable entries I could uncover by searching the 185-page document for the separate terms “distance” and “wrong” were the following two sections, and neither appears to fit properly in this instance:
4039.17. Objection to distance of course. An objection to the distance of a course officially designated must be made not less than 15 minutes before the race.
4039.18. Objection to matters occurring in race. An objection to a horse on the ground of the horse not having run the proper course or of the race having been run on a wrong course or of any other matter occurring in the race must be made before the numbers of the horses placed in the race are confirmed officially.
Regardless of how this lapse is adjudicated, several important questions will linger unanswered. Most notably, did not knowing they had to cover an extra 330 feet in a 2-year-old race make a difference in the way the jockeys rode the breakaway pacemakers, who jumped out to a lead of nearly five lengths on the backstretch?
The eight-length winner, Somelikeithotbrown (Big Brown) certainly looked like he was going to inhale the field at any distance.
But the New York-bred MSW race also featured five first-time starters–including the beaten favorite–and no one can say for certain how the extra sixteenth of a mile factored into their efforts considering they weren’t being prepped in training to negotiate nine furlongs at first asking.
And if you bet money on the race, you incorporated similar expectations into your assessment of all the horses before you placed a wager.
After initially publishing adjusted times, Equibase, the sport’s official record-keeper, has opted not to assign any recalculated or hand-clocked final time to the race.
Yet here’s the more pervasive problem: I don’t buy the logic that a single race as Saratoga is unclockable when every week, at tracks all across the country, races are being “silently” contested with skewed fractional and final times, largely because of ambiguous “about” distances, clocking equipment malfunctions, human errors, and ever-changing timing beam run-ups that vary not only from track to track, but from race to race over the same courses.
A single botched race at the nation’s premier Thoroughbred venue will get plenty more attention than the day-to-day inaccuracies that get logged into charts and past performances. But the latter scenario is the one that deserves more scrutiny. The general public rarely notices so-called “run-of-the-mill” timing errors. But if you check out online message boards and handicapping forums devoted to figure-making, you will see no shortage of complaints about timing inaccuracies on a regular basis.
One such thread that started about 2 1/2 years ago on PaceAdvantage.com lists 588 posts that have been viewed 81,460 times by forum readers under the heading “Fractional Time Errors.” The tracks alleged to have mistakes range from small- and mid-level venues to the sport’s most elite race meets.
Pointing out timing errors is hardly new. In a 2014 Washington Post column titled “Horse Racing’s Runaway Run-ups are Moving the Starting Line,” Andrew Beyer, the dean of turf writing and the creator of Beyer Speed Figures, wrote that the system of allowing up to hundreds of feet between the starting gate and when the first horse triggers the electronic timing beam is “preposterous” because “Thoroughbred racing is the only sport that can’t produce accurate timing of its own events…. In a perfect world, Thoroughbred racing would do what every other sport does: Run races at exact distances and time them from the start.”
Earlier this year, Craig Milkowski of TimeformUS wrote in a blog post that the problem might be bigger than it appears at first glance. As an example at just one repeat offender, he cited data from 2009 through 2017 at Gulfstream Park showing the popular 7 1/2-furlong distance had been run nearly 800 times over the Florida’s track’s grass course. Yet in races at that distance, an astounding 100 different course set-ups were used, including one rail- and gate-placement configuration that resulted in a run-up of 384 feet–exceeding the sixteenth-of-a-mile gaffe at Saratoga on Wednesday by a full 54 feet.
To be fair, different grass race rail and gate placements need to be incorporated to save wear and tear from starting at the exact same spot on a turf course. But this still doesn’t address the bewildering array of fluctuations that exist on dirt-track configurations or the near-daily timing errors that only diehard figure-makers seem to catch.
So when you read in a few days or weeks about which Saratoga official (or officials) are on the hook for a very public wrong-distance miscue, bear in mind that the industry as a whole remains unmotivated to fix or accept responsibility for a more widespread problem that undermines the sport’s most crucial data point: Exactly how fast and how far did a horse run?